My 5 year old doesn't like talking to or playing with other children. Is this normal?
Well, it can be normal. Children, and people in general, can have very different temperaments. Some are very outgoing, make friends easily and enjoying being with other people, while others are quite and shy. In fact, about 30-40% of people label themselves as being shy.
And according to Dr. Henry A. Paul, in his book Is My Child OK?, 'it's essential to remember that normal temperaments cover a very wide spectrum: The quite child and the lively, social child may both be quite normal.'
And being shy as a child does not mean that your child will have problems later in life. One study showed that 'most shy children did not develop an anxiety disorder and most adolescents with anxiety disorders had not been especially shy.'1
Children who are shy often have at least one parent who is also shy. And it is usually easy to spot children who will become shy, as they don't get over the normal stranger and separation anxiety of early childhood.
Like the child who is too aggressive and outgoing, shyness may be a problem if it is interfering in his overall functioning. For example, if your child is so shy that he won't go to school or won't ever talk to his teacher, then that could be a problem.
Shyness can also be a problem if being around others causes your child to have a lot of fear or anxiety. Or if it is causing your child to feel lonely or have low self-esteem.
Selective mutism is an extreme form of shyness and social anxiety in which children refuse to talk in certain situations, such as when at school or daycare.2 These children can talk, and their refusal to talk leads to difficulty in forming relationships and significantly interferes with educational and occupational performance.
So how do you know if your child's shyness is normal and when it is a problem and you need to get more help?
Shyness is likely to be normal if your child is otherwise growing and developing normally and:
- he is mostly shy in new situations and around new people, but eventually warms up after he has been around a person for a while
- he has problems in larger group settings, but does well in smaller groups of people
- he is eventually able to make some friends
Shyness can be a problem if you think that it is interfering with your child's ability to make friends or if you think that he won't be able to do well in school.
Children who are shy can also be thought of as having a problem if their shyness is a big mismatch for the temperament for their parents and other family members. If a parent is shy too, but functions normally in social settings, they will often think that their child's shyness is normal too. But if the parents are very outgoing and are extroverts, they will more often see their child's shyness as a problem.
What can you do to help your shy child?
Most importantly, you should respect your child's shyness, talk about his feelings and fears, and don't tease or criticize him about being shy.
Other things that you can do include:
- prepare your child in advance for new activities and events. If he will be going to a birthday party next week, begin talking about it early and talk about who will be there, what the theme of the party will be, what activities he might do, etc. Dr. Paul also suggests that you might 'rehearse what will happen and what the child might be expected to say or do.'
- try to stick to activities with very small groups of people or just one other child. An older child, adult or family member that the child is comfortable with can also help your child feel less anxious during the activity.
- your shy child might also do better in noncompetitive activities, instead of group sports like soccer or baseball, although if he is interested, competitive sports might help him build self-esteem and friendships with teammates.
- playdates with children that are younger than your child might be helpful. When setting up playdates or activities, you might try to plan them at your own home, so that your child doesn't have the added stress of being in a new environment.
- If your child doesn't do well with younger children or children of his same age, you might see how he does around older children. Some kids, especially those who are advanced or gifted, do better around older children and adults.
- gently encourage your child to try new things and activities. Although you don't want to force or push your child to do things that he will be uncomfortable with, you also usually don't want to overprotect him.
- set up situations so that other kids will come over and play with or near your child. So if you are sitting at the park, bring a few extra toys so that other children might want to come over and play with them.
- offer lots of positive attention and reinforcement when your child does try new things and encourage his strengths and interests.
- watch your own reactions around new people and new situations, especially if you are shy.
When to get help?
As we have mentioned, shyness can be a problem if it is interfering with your child's functioning, either socially or in school. If you think your child has more than simple shyness, and instead has social phobia or a social anxiety disorder, an evaluation by your Pediatrician and/or a child psychologist or child psychiatrist might be a good idea.
For children who are shy and very anxious or fearful or if they have selective mutism, treatment with an antidepressant, like Prozac, might be helpful.
If a parent is very anxious or shy, then they themselves might need to get additional help from a mental health professional.
1 Does shy - inhibited temperament in childhood lead to anxiety problems in adolescence? Prior M - J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry - 01-Apr-2000; 39(4): 461-8
2 Selective mutism -- the child who doesn't speak at school. Joseph PR - Pediatrics - 01-Aug-1999; 104(2 Pt 1): 308-9